Notre Dame A Tale of Two Defenses

Notre Dame fans had every reason to be concerned about the USC Trojans heading into last Saturday’s prime time matchup at Notre Dame Stadium. Yes, the Trojans were coming off a loss to Washington in which their offense looked impotent, but the Huskies were able to stymie USC quarterback Cody Kessler by generating pressure with a minimal pass rush, a blueprint Notre Dame could not duplicate with its limited ability to rush the passer. And yes, USC was enduring arguably one of the worst public relations disasters in NCAA history with the firing of head coach Steve Sarkisian after allegations of alcohol abuse while on the job, an enormous distraction to the football team. But as is often the case, rivalries have a way of drawing out everyone’s best effort, and despite USC’s record, Notre Dame was only one year removed from suffering its most embarrassing loss of the Brian Kelly era to largely the same USC roster considered by many to be a preseason national championship contender.

This game was more than a major recruiting event and a must-have contest against a bitter rival. USC is the most explosive offense Notre Dame will face this season, and it was an enormous test for Brian VanGorder, a defensive coordinator with much to prove.   Notre Dame fans tuned in Saturday still not really knowing what to make of VanGorder after a discordant 2014 campaign. The Irish defense played an instrumental role in getting the team to 6-0 before having a catastrophic meltdown, losing 5 of the final 7 games and surrendering an unfathomable average of 44.5 points per game for the final four regular season matchups.   Which defensive identity was the true one for VanGorder? The abundance of injuries on the defensive side provided VanGorder a mulligan for the season, but the question has followed VanGorder into 2015.

So how would Notre Dame’s defense fare against a USC offense that raked them over the coals more than any other last season? No matter how poor USC’s season had been prior to kickoff, how could anyone feel confident going against a quarterback who completed 80-percent of his passes for nearly 400 yards and six touchdowns the previous year? Notre Dame’s game against the Trojans was the perfect opportunity to evaluate what Notre Dame truly has in Brian VanGorder, and he provided plenty of fuel for skepticism.

How is it possible that Notre Dame is still giving up long touchdown passes on trick plays? Opponents have routinely attempted gimmicks such as flea flickers against the Irish defense due to the safeties completely abandoning their positions to assist against the run. While every defense at some point succumbs to such plays, there is a reason why every team Notre Dame has faced to date this season has attempted such a play at least once: Notre Dame has shown no ability to adapt to prevent it from happening.

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Possessing a 24-10 lead late in the second quarter, Notre Dame’s defense came out in quarters coverage against USC’s offense, a defensive coverage specifically designed to prevent deep plays. Kessler faked a handoff to running back Tre Madden only to throw what appeared to be a screen pass behind the line of scrimmage to wide receiver Jalen Greene, a former high school quarterback. The fact the ball was in the hands of a former quarterback should have sent alarm bells off to safety Matthias Farley and cornerback Cole Luke, both upperclassmen, that a trick play could be in the works. Yet Farley and Luke abandoned their posts to swarm to the football, leading to Greene making an easy pass to a wide open JuJu Smith-Schuster en route to a 75 yard touchdown.

When Brian Kelly was asked at the half what can be done to prevent the big plays that brought USC back from what was trending toward a blowout at the hands of Notre Dame, Kelly was abrupt and dismissive with his response.

“We’ve got to tackle.”

Yet tackling, as poor as it was against USC, does not explain why the same mental errors continue to be made. Notre Dame knows it’s a problem and so do its opponents – which is why trick plays continue to be attempted against the Irish defense – but the defense continues to fall for it, and that’s on the coaching staff.

Staying consistent with VanGorder’s tenure in South Bend, however, was a tale of two defenses. When Notre Dame needed the defense to step up the most, it did, keeping the Trojans off the scoreboard for the last 25 minutes of the game and limiting USC to a modest 87 yards, including two turnovers.

What the defensive identity is under VanGorder’s leadership may still be unsettled, but Notre Dame enters its bye week with a 6-1 record and ranked No. 11 in the latest Associated Press poll after a win over a bitter rival.

And that’s not a bad fill-in.

Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his wife and those around him. Scott can be reached at scottjanssenhp@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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22 Comments

  1. Good article. It seems to me that BVG’s defensive schemes fit our athleticism better, but require more individual decision-making at real- time speed for the DBs. So for 80-90% of the plays it works better than Diaco’s scheme, but it breaks down when gadget plays require careful attention to assignments and reading formations. The key seems to be the free safety. It looks like his scheme requires an athletic safety like Redfield, with the brains of a Joe Schmidt.

    The poor tackling, however, has got to stop.

  2. @ Scott J. i’m new to UHND (btw, what’s that stand for?), but looking forward to plain talk about ND FB from actual ND fans. Followed ND as an ardent fan for decades. I tend to make negative comments but mostly directed at the coaching staff who i believe are responsible for 98% of losses we’ve suffered over the past 4+ years. Wanted to be a believer in B Kelly but his on-field demeanor turned me off and then i lost all respect for him when he (or Bob Diaco) decided to play ‘prevent D” against Alabama. Not only was it a poor judgment call, but Kelly never faced up to it (his decision) as being the cause of our poor showing. We still suffer the stigma of it. In the second half, against SC, Kelly sat K Russell down and implored him to ‘play the ball in the air’. True ND fans know, it seems like they’ve been told to allow the catch, then tackle the receiver. As a result, one outrageous pick and one tipped pick. Based on just that little talk, i’m looking forward to a more aggressive DB’s play beginning this week vs Temple. The only thing this team needed from the outset was to establish a dominant D. It would help if the rush was better, but at least let’s start with the DBs.

  3. @ Shaz:
    I noticed the ‘tale of two halves’ also.
    And if you take away a few blown coverages vs. GT and VA, ND second-half D’ stats look even better.
    re: ND’s D’
    As with Navy and SC and even Clemson, once the ND D’ (whether scheme change or player adjustment or both) adjusts to the speed and execution of their opponents’ O’, they play lights out on D’.
    Credit to BVG’s half-time adjustments, but often the ND players’ execution and focus seem to have as much to do with it as anything else. Unlike just last November, ND plays as if they expect to win.

    ND’s pass rush and QB pressure might be the key to their rise to elite level, forcing more TOs.
    Versus three very good upcoming D’s, Kizer and company might not match their impressive 38+ O’ average.What’s encouraging is the ND D’ making those key stops all season long with games on the line.

  4. It will be a dogfight vs Temple. The Irish will really need to bring it for four quarters. Unless its a monsoon like the Clemson game and unless the Irish mail it in during the first half, they should win. This is will be a bowl game atmosphere.

    GO IRISH!

  5. NCAA stats through 10/24. Total Defense. B.C. #2, Temple #14, Pitt #16, Wake 32, & Stanford 35. Incidentally Clemson #4. That is all in ND favor. Hope they will seize it for their SOS and their case to the committee. They’ll need it. Thanks.

  6. Yes the “D” needs to play a full 4 quaterers. Find a pass rush, and practice the fundamentals. Best not to keep looking ahead to Stanford. Three of these teams have highly ranked “D’s” and the offense will need to game plan for. I.E. Clemson. Need to see many points put up on these “D’s”. Unfortunately because of playoff committee. I don’t like it and would rather play more kids. These were unforeseen opportunities, so best to take advantage, get growth, and make statements. Thanks.

  7. I agree that poor tackling is the key issue, and, given our talented players, inexcusable. VanGorder, what is he doing about it? I find the continuation hard to comprehend. Is it overexcitement or bravado? Slam hits and arm tackles won’t do against today’s better backs and receivers! I don’t think it’s beneath our guys to tackle the old-fashioned way, closing correctly and driving low on the legs through the ball carrier. Copy Jalen.

  8. The D is all about adjustments, and the second half is owned by BVG and the defense. Trick plays will work against this scheme, but unless the opponent offense is running a few each drive, it is not of major concern to me. The D seems to be getting more cohesion, and only truly lacks championship depth. Utah’s loss to USC, Florida State going down to GT, and Clemson’s rise with our 2 point loss are all great signs for the Irish SOS. Temple, Pitt, and Stanford are all ranked…Michigan State and Ohio State play each other, Bama and LSU must meet, and there is no way Iowa wins the Big 10. If the Irish win out, they should be heading to the playoffs. I also think Clemson fails in the ACC championship.

    Kizer looks real good and is getting better each week…I dare to opinion that we are better off with him moving forward than Malik when he is healthy.

  9. ND’s defense is an aggressive defense and is meant to be. That type of defense is more apt to be vulnerable to the trick plays. The players “flow” to the ball” immediately. They have to be able to read their keys better and that will improve. Hopefully.

  10. The vastly improved o-line play, and Prosise leading the now feared running attack, has allowed for Kizer’s development with a formidable receiving corps. Prosise and Kizer have been marvelous. Special teams are now actually special for ND too. The defense and BVG however, for many points in the article itself, and comments in the posts, remains suspect. The ability to play a full game has eluded the defense, despite some strong, but albeit intermittent performances. Our possible position in the playoffs, and bowl season, depends on a consistent defense IMO.

  11. Agree. VanGorder’s defense has been frustratingly inconsistent. They make some key, dominant plays, then give up big plays that they shouldn’t. They have responded well to the triple option but give up gimmicky plays.

    In some ways I miss Bob Diaco’s bend but don’t break defense of 2012. They were much more consistent and dominant. Their goal was always to keep everything in front. I’ll never forget the USC game that year when USC had about 8 chances to punch it in the end-zone because of penalties and USC could not get the ball in.

    VanGorder still has potential and I’m not ready to write him off yet. But they have to work on consistency and tackling.

  12. Agree dere JDH. “Mmmmmm , out sweet it is.” (Jackie Gleason) Can’t believe Iowa , if wins Big Ten , will be in Final Four. In all my years growing up in Midwest , our family never took a vacation to Iowa. That’s not to say there aren’t neat things to do there.

  13. It’s always great when you have a bye week but still move up in the polls. ND’s S.O.S just took a nice upward ride. GT beating FSU will help marginally, but USC’s absolute destruction of Utah was something to behold.

  14. Tale of two defenses?

    More like a tale of two halves.
    Points allowed in the second half:

    Texas 3
    UVA 13
    GT 15
    UMASS 7
    Clemson 10
    Navy 3
    USC 7

  15. The biggest issue I see with tackling is the players don’t breakdown prior to getting to the ball carrier. Usually they fly right by them or shoot at the legs and miss.

  16. I agree with everything said. The secondary is just not disciplined and they are very poor tacklers. This is the worst possible scenario for playing Stanford. The Cardinal will eat ND secondary alive if they have a game like they just had vs USC.

    PS: If Frank wrote the blog, why is Scott Janssen’s name and info on the bottom?

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